Premier League Will Not Release Players for World Cup Qualifiers

The Premier League said Tuesday that its clubs would not release any players for travel to so-called red list countries during soccer’s September international break, a brazen rejection of protocol that sets up a significant confrontation with the sport’s governing body, FIFA.

The decision, a reflection of continuing public health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, will affect roughly 60 Premier League players from the 26 countries currently on the British government’s red list. The British government warns residents that they “should not travel” to any of the countries on the list; those who do face either strict quarantine conditions or outright exclusion if they attempt to return to Britain.

the decision to withhold players wants affect World Cup qualifying matches for the national teams of more than two dozen countries, including Argentina, Brazil and the rest of South America, and also those from coronavirus hot spots like Egypt, Mexico and Turkey. It also touches 19 of the Premier League’s 20 clubs, potentially affecting players like Liverpool’s Alisson and Roberto Firmino (Brazil) and Mohamed Salah (Egypt); Manchester City’s Brazilian stars Fernandinho, Ederson and Gabriel Jesus; Manchester United’s Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani; and Colombians like Yerry Mina (Everton) and Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham).

Within hours, officials from Spain’s top league released a statement in which they said they would support any of their teams who decided to refuse to release players headed to South America. It said the number of players affected — currently 25 from 13 clubs — was expected to grow as countries announced their national team rosters this week.

The Premier League said its decision was a result of FIFA not extending a rule that had allowed clubs to hold back players if they were required to quarantine upon their return to their clubs. Forcing teams to release players and then quarantine, sometimes for as long as 10 days when they returned, created a situation that affected league play and fair competition, the clubs and the Premier League have argued.

“If required to quarantine on return from red list countries, not only would players’ welfare and fitness be significantly impacted, but they would also be unavailable to prepare for and play in two Premier League match rounds, a UEFA club competition matchday and the third round of the EFL Cup,” the Premier League said in a statement.

Even after those quarantine periods, the clubs said, the players would then need more time to regain match fitness.

Officials at La Liga in Spain cited similar concerns, and vowed to defend any team that was punished for refusing to release players. “La Liga will take appropriate legal action as this change will affect the availability of players to play for their clubs, to the clear detriment of the competition’s integrity,” the league said in a statement.

FIFA’s international windows normally allow players to return to their home countries for two games, but the pandemic has left FIFA a compressed window to complete qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cupwhich will open in Qatar next November.

Most of the world’s top leagues and clubs had urged FIFA in a meeting this summer to work with them to find an accommodation to the scheduling crunch, which now will require national teams to play three matches instead of two in each international window.

FIFA ignored those entries, though, and added two extra days for qualifying matches in September and October. The clubs and their leagues were furious, but they face penalties if they refuse to release their players.

That appears to be a risk the Premier League teams are willing to take.

“Premier League clubs have always supported their players’ desires to represent their countries — this is a matter of pride for all concerned,” the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, said in a statement supporting the clubs’ decision. “However, clubs have reluctantly but rightly come to the conclusion that it would be entirely unreasonable to release players under these new circumstances.”

The Premier League’s objects are also financial, and competitive. FIFA’s ruling extending the international break is likely to leave clubs in Europe and elsewhere without hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent for key early-season games because the new dates — and player travel — would overlap with domestic schedules.

“As a governing body, FIFA should be trying to find the best solution for the entire football community,” the World Leagues Forum, an umbrella organization for about 40 top leagues, said in a statement protesting the decision to add days to the international break . “Instead, FIFA has decided to impose the worst possible option with practically no notice. This poses an obvious governance issue which will have to be addressed.”

FIFA has rejected the appeals of the clubs and the leagues to find a different solution, saying in a statement related directly to the release of South American players that its schedule allows for adequate rest.

“The addition of two days will ensure sufficient rest and preparation time between matches, reflecting the longer travel distances required both to and within South America, thus safeguarding player welfare by mitigating the negative consequences of this more intense schedule, while ensuring fair competition as well as a prompt return to their clubs of the players involved,” FIFA said.

FIFA made no immediate comment on the Premier League’s announcement that it would not release players.

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